The Martian Investigations: Death on the Rust Planet, Design Diary

This article is spoiler-free.

I decided to make The Martian Investigations after playing through Sherlock Holmes; Consulting Detective (review; BGG) and Arkham Investigator (BGG). I was really impressed with the ways these books used the choose your own adventure format to create something intellectually challenging and thematically immersive. I figured, "Oh this will be easy. 4000 words and I'll have it finished by the weekend." I was so wrong!

The original draft for the map of Banks, with planning notes.
The thing that makes these kinds of games immersive and interesting is that they give the player complete freedom over how the narrative should proceed. Rather than being sent down a linear path, the game works like this:

  1. The players read through an opening scene, establishing a crime that needs to be solved.
  2. Players can then consult a map, a directory, the daily newspaper and perhaps some other documents (here's an example from the start of my own game)
  3. Players choose where they wish to visit on the map, using the above documents.
  4. They open a case book to the map coordinates they are interested in and are able to read a scene relating to those coordinates.
  5. They can do this as much as they want.
  6. Once they think they have solved the crime, players flip to the back of the casebook and are presented with some questions.
  7. They answer these questions and then read the closing scene, which includes the solution.
  8. They calculate a score based on their answers, the amount of places they visited, and sometimes some other variables.

This structure is not my own design. It's been used plenty of times before, like in the aforementioned two games, and other games ranging back to the 1970s (such as Gumshoe).

The map that my first playtesters got.
The unique challenge that this structure presents is that the player is able to visit any location at any time. So this means that every scene needs to present data in such a way that it won't assume the reader has acquired information from another scene, but will make sense if the player has found that extra information. Here's an example I've just made up:

The Case:
Somebody got gunned down outside a New York movie theater.

Location: The Theater Ticket Booth
The clerk tells you that she saw the guy who did the shooting. He had green hair.

Location: The Train Station
You see a guy with green hair rushing to catch a train to Chicago.

Now this makes sense. If you visit the locations in reverse order, it still makes sense. However, if we try to have the player interrogate the green haired man because they were seen at the scene of the crime, then it wouldn't make sense - we can't assume the player has that knowledge.

This all seems very easy and straightforward. Until you realise that The Martian Investigations has 61 unique locations, any of which can be visited at any time. In fact, my very first playtester picked up the game, visited a location I absolutely did not expect, and immediately was given the "smoking-gun" clue, cracking the case wide open. There's a similar scene to this in Arkham Investigator where you arrive to find a police bust, almost capturing the suspect - this would have been so unsatisfying if I had visited the scene out of order.

The first beta version.
The way around this problem is to give clues that may seem innocent enough, until they are combined with other clues. The green hair clue is an example of this - it's innocent enough, until you speak to the ticket clerk at the theater.

Another challenge in this kind of writing is the delicate balancing act of giving enough clues, enough false clues, and holding enough back. The first version of The Martian Investigations was really quite difficult and required some significant deductive leaps. It was too much for the playtesters who experienced it. I had to start dropping in more clues, more interesting leads, more characters who could suggest the right direction to you, all without making things too difficult.

Other issues need to be addressed is the different kinds of playstyles. The first playtester I had just took wild leaps of faith, visiting the most unlikely of suspects. The second playtester I had was more like me, following through the most obvious links. The third playtester was a total surprise - they decided to canvas the entire neighborhood around one of the crime scenes (the case features two simultaneous crimes to solve) - and so I had to make sure the game wouldn't break under this kind of scrutiny. Another playtester found a reference to a characters first name and visited ALL the people in the directory with that first name. All of these playstyles seems legitimate to me, so this kind of game should be accommodating to them - so obviously this meant big rewrites for me.

A cleaned up version of the map, with different colours indicating the various neighborhoods.
There are a few limitations to this style of game, which I am going to consider working with in the next case.

  1. Currently you cannot go back an re-interrogate a witness if you later found them to be lying.
  2. Sometimes the worlds of these games can feel a little static. I would like to find a way to have scenes change depending on which scenes you've already seen. For example, maybe you visit a suspect, spook them, and later find them visiting their partner in crime, warning said partner of your investigation, I would also like to have a variation where the plot moves on as you investigate, so perhaps every hour of narrative time requires you to read a set scene where another crime happens - thus you have to solve the case with a time limit.

In the end, I'm really proud of the first case for The Martian Investigations. It challenges the player to solve two cases simultaneously in an unfamiliar and hostile environment. It clocks in at 3 times my planned length - it's currently 12000 words - and has received very positive responses from playtesters. Now I'm simply waiting on reviews.

If you want a copy, you can grab one for $2 at Payhip. There's a 50c discount if you tweet or facebook it at the moment of purchase. There's also a free preview of the first 7 pages there. And don't feel like you then need to print the files out - I've designed the game so that it can be comfortably played from a tablet, PC, and some phones (you need to be able to open multiple PDF files). If you do play it, please do let me know how it goes!

"The Martian Investigations" - A Story-Based Detective Game

Earlier this year, I was able to try two cases from the excellent deduction game, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (review and details). Then I tried to get my own copy only to find it sold out everywhere! I loved the way the game offered a new (to me) spin on choose-your-own-adventure games. First up, it provided a completely open world for the players to move through at will. If you want to go to the French Embassy, you just open the book to that page. The tobacconists, just flip to the correct section. And then you would be able to read a scene of the story taking place in that place, gathering more of the clues that you need to solve the crime that each particular case presents. And that freedom meant you had a game which truly was able to stretch players' intellects and, amazing for a choose-your-own-adventure, work together as a team.

As a long time writer, reader and language teacher, I vowed I was going to take the system and try to do something of my own with it.

And I've just finished doing that!

The Martian Investigations uses the mechanics I first encountered in Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, and have since encountered in other games like Arkham Investigator (actually, I preferred this to SH:CD). The twist with my own game is most noticeably in the setting - rather than and old fashioned Whitechapel or Arkham, I decided to set my game in science-fiction setting - a mining colony on Mars in the year 2307. This meant that I could start throwing some interesting twists and mechanics into the game.

So, in The Martian Investigations, you play the role of Detective Hayley Bendis. You are employed by an enormous mining company, who sends you down to one of its many mining settlements on Mars after a pair of murders. One person was stabbed to death in an old maintenance tunnel and another individual was locked in a greenhouse while its atmosphere was vented. Grisly stuff. You are tasked with the job of finding the culprits of these two murders and bringing them to justice. The only problems are that you're an outsider to the settlement, most people think you're a corporate spy, and nobody in town seems to get along - the researchers are threatening to blow up mining operations, the miners are all stressed, and the security forces have no manpower to spare.

Using a map of the settlement, the daily news feed, and a business and personnel directory, you must make your way through the settlement, interviewing witnesses and suspects, investigating crime scenes, and piecing together the clues of the two crimes. When you think you have the answers, you flip to the back of the book and read a series of questions based on the cases. The quality of your answers will dictate your final score.

Much like the games that inspired it, there is no randomness in The Martian Investigations. This is purely a game of intellect, where you must spot the essential clues and keep your wits about you.

You can get The Martian Investigations from Payhip. You can also read a 7-page preview of the game, to get an idea of if this is for you. The total cost of The Martian Investigations is $2, but if that's too pricey for you, tweeting or facebooking about it gets you a 25% discount when you place your order.


Case 2 of The Martian Investigations is now available.

You can find Case 2, here.

Or you can get the twin pack, containing Case 1 and 2, at a discount, here.